Using technology guided by art, Jeryl Hoover, Artistic Director of the Fredericksburg Theater Company, coordinates the movements, music and motions of the 65-member cast of Beauty and the Beast. The popular Disney musical runs the next three weekends. Photo by Phil Houseal
A musical without the pit
by Phil Houseal
When the curtain goes up on the Fredericksburg Theater Company's production of Beauty and the Beast this weekend, you will hear the lush strings and booming percussion of a 30-piece orchestra. But the music will flow through the fingers of just one man - Jeryl Hoover.
Hoover will not actually be playing violin, oboe, trumpet and tympani (although I would not be surprised if he could), but he will be controlling the sounds of all the instruments.
Welcome to the future of community theater.
Seated alone below the stage apron, Hoover manipulates a laptop computer, sound generator, and MIDI controller. The sounds are digital samples of actual instruments, with Hoover guiding the pacing, tempo, and volume, adding measures and editing on the fly.
Directing this electronic orchestra involves more than punching buttons. The equipment requires the skills of a musician. Hoover is amply qualified. He earned a Doctorate of Musical Arts in Voice Performance from Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth.
When Hoover and his wife Ruthann came to Fredericksburg 10 years ago, they did not intend to start a community theater. They were looking for a better place to raise their three sons. But Hoover saw an opening, and this is FTC's 10th summer season.
"We are absolutely gratified," Hoover said. "It has been a tremendous ride for us. The town has really embraced FTC. It has grown beyond our wildest dreams in the shows we are able to do, and the numbers we attract. It is rare for any arts organization to operate in the black, and we have done so every year."
Hoover is now Artistic Director of FTC, with the board handling the executive duties. Hoover, a consummate performer, is also shifting his role from onstage to offstage.
"There is a whole different set of priorities," he said. "As a performer, I am much more concerned about me. Am I getting it right, am I going to remember my lines and my songs, am I selling the character?"
"I do like performing, but I prefer this," he said. "I get to be the one to help everybody look good. To watch the dancers, singers, and actors be better just gives me a huge rush."
This is the first show Hoover has tried without a live orchestra.
"For this particular show, we did not want 20 musicians sitting in front of the seats," he said. "We want kids to be drawn into the story. If they have to look through an orchestra, they can't get the feel of the show."
Hoover can also control the nuances more precisely.
"With a live orchestra in this hall, because you have no pit, underscoring is always a problem," he said. "There is no way musicians can play soft enough for those tender moments of dialogue. With this setup, actors get to act the way they really want to act.
Beauty and the Beast is the biggest, most complicated production the Fredericksburg Theater Company has attempted. The musical features a cast of 65, ranging in age from 6 to 73.
"I get such a charge pulling off a big project," Hoover said, pledging to continue to stage big shows for families. "We want families to be entertained. We want them to bring their kids. I got hooked on the power of theater in the fifth grade. I sat in the audience and said 'wow, I want to do that.' People who have a passion for anything were hooked early."
"We use our high school auditorium, featuring community people, supported by community funding," he said. "This is definitely a community thing."